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A look back at the 'Great Juneau Mudslide'

Disaster struck the capital city 75 years ago today

Posted: November 22, 2011 - 1:01am
Volunteers used long boards to climb atop a pile of mud and debris that took lives and destroyed peoperty 75 years ago today when a landslide engulfed buildings Juneau's waterfront. They shoveled dirt into three trucks as they tried to save those trapped. Photographer Trevor M. Davis. Alaska State Library, Historical Collections  Trevor M. Davis / Alaska State Library Collection
Trevor M. Davis / Alaska State Library Collection
Volunteers used long boards to climb atop a pile of mud and debris that took lives and destroyed peoperty 75 years ago today when a landslide engulfed buildings Juneau's waterfront. They shoveled dirt into three trucks as they tried to save those trapped. Photographer Trevor M. Davis. Alaska State Library, Historical Collections

There are certain dates that most Americans, when they think of them, feel a real sense of sadness, such as Dec. 7, 1941, or Sept. 11, 2001. Here in Juneau there is a date that runs cold shivers through the minds of many old Juneuites. That date is Nov. 22, 1936, 75 years ago, a day of great tragedy and loss of property.

It was not an unusual November; lots of rain and wind. Then, on Nov. 21, the rain really began to fall, 3.89 inches in 24 hours. Nov. 22 was a Sunday and people were beginning to think about Thanksgiving, which was coming up that Thursday. Then, at 7:30 p.m. the phone services and all electrical lights blinked out throughout Juneau. A terrific mass of water-saturated ground broke free from the steep slope of Mount Roberts and swept down on the buildings along South Franklin Street. Within moments the people within the Nickinovich Apartments, Martin Apartments, Matson Boarding House, Hugo Peterson Building and the Gus Erickson residence were engulfed by tons of mud, rocks, trees and other debris. The slide crossed Franklin and smashed up against the Juneau Cold Storage building and the Snow White Laundry. Inside of all those torn and smashed buildings had been at least 23 people.

As is usual for the people of Alaska, people from both Douglas and Juneau turned out in droves to begin the difficult job of searching for survivors and comforting the grief-stricken relatives. Along with these volunteers were men from the Coast Guard Cutter Tallapoosa, Forest Service, Governor’s Office, and Bureau of Public Roads. Within three hours, crews were at work. Early the next morning a fire broke out in what was believed to be the remains of the Nickinovich Apartments.

Monday night many had given up hope that anyone else was still alive. The crews continued to work 24 hours each day with men organized into three eight-hour shifts and the rain continued to fall. By Tuesday morning, five bodies had been recovered from the slide, but four more were reported missing. The Daily Alaska Empire reported “All the bodies were cut, bruised and discolored as if hurled through a mighty grinder.”

Finally, by Tuesday night the list of the dead had grown. The dead were: Mrs. George Lee, Pete Battello, Oscar Laito (of Sitka), Mr. and Mrs. Hugo Peterson, Mrs. Fred Mattson, Lena Petterson, Mrs. Vanali, Mr. ans Mrs. Hoag, Forest Hoag (Mrs. Hoag’s son), Gus Erickson and Loraine Vanali (a 3 year old). Two weeks later, Mrs. William Lott died from her injuries at the hospital. A total of 16 people died. It had been the greatest disaster in Juneau’s history.

Another Thanksgiving is rolling around and maybe while each of us is reviewing our blessings we might think about the survivors of that disaster. Many of their children and grandchildren still reside here in our community. The scars of that disaster are with them every day. While looking into this disaster I found Malin Babcock. Her grandparents (Mr. and Mrs. Hugo Peterson) both died in that disaster but her mother Lillian survived. While talking with her I realized that even though she had not personally witnessed the disaster the trauma still impacted her life. These people are our neighbors and pioneers of Juneau. Unlike the examples I mentioned earlier, no monument has ever been erected to honor those who lost there lives in Juneau’s most devastating disaster. Maybe the time has come?

• Empire archives, “The Juneau Gold Belt” by Earl Redman and the Alaska State Library, Alaska Historical Collections contributed to this article.

• Editor's note: This article has been changed to correct Malin Babcock's first name.

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